After months of waffling on commitment to a balanced budget, B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon is now confident he can slay the province’s deficit next year.
“It’s going to be tough but I’m confident that we can do so,” he said in an interview. “I think it’s very important we do so.”
The final “game-day” decision won’t be made until this year’s budget, which will be tabled Feb. 21, is locked down later this month. But Mr. Falcon said he is seeing enough positive economic news that he now believes he can wipe out the $700-million deficit that is currently pencilled in for the 2013 fiscal year.
This year’s budget is expected to be in the red but, by law, the B.C. Liberal government must balance the 2013 budget – which is due to be introduced just weeks before the next provincial election.
But Mr. Falcon has been warning since November that it may not be possible to meet the target, given the global economic downturn. A deficit in 2013 would require the balanced budget law to be amended – again.
Despite the gloomy forecasts, B.C. Premier Christy Clark has made a string of spending promises in recent weeks for community gaming, adults with developmental disabilities and aid to forestry contractors. She has already drained more than a tenth of the contingency funds in the budget Mr. Falcon will table next month – and that’s without establishing a price tag for the forest-sector aid.
It is also likely that spending increases will be needed to address pressures in the justice system, plus, there is the potential for public-sector wage increases this year.
Mr. Falcon said, however, there is no softening of the government’s commitment to eliminating the deficit.
He said he was “very nervous” last November about the economic outlook in Canada and the U.S.
“The good news is, I’ve seen some encouraging signs, particularly out of the United States, which suggests we’re starting to see a turnaround,” he said. He plans to release an update this week from his panel of independent economic forecasters. The B.C. economy is still expected to grow by two per cent this year, he said.
He said the Premier’s recent promises, including a $40-million lift in programs for adults with developmental disabilities, can be managed without throwing the budget plan off.
“With respect to the Premier’s spending announcements, it is very important to understand we have been tracking all of those pressures,” he said. “What we will not do is throw money at a problem without demanding improved outcomes.”
So far there has not been any cash injection for the justice system, which is seeing an increasing number of cases thrown out because of trial delays.
The Premier, speaking last Friday to reporters, said that is a problem that must be addressed.
Ms. Clark said she wants to understand why the courts are increasingly backlogged when crime rates are dropping.
“We have issues that we have to look deeply at to understand the problems,” she said. “If it takes years and years to dispose of a case, or a case is stayed, that’s not acceptable.”
Mr. Falcon acknowledged that will add to the fiscal pressures he is stick-handling.
“While we are prepared to add more money to the courts, we are also wanting to see reforms to give the public confidence that they are driving efficiencies.”